.UCSC’s Institute of Arts & Sciences Imagines a Future Without Prisons

New multi-use building might be the most interesting space in downtown Santa Cruz

Twenty years after its inception, UCSC’s Institute of Arts & Sciences (IAS) now occupies what is arguably the most interesting multi-use space in Santa Cruz. 

The 15,000-square-foot building facing Delaware Avenue, distinguished by its tilt-up poured concrete walls and rooftop garden, was designed by architect Mark Primack. The IAS boasts three climate-controlled galleries, two screening rooms, spacious seminar suites and an open library, all designed to advance UCSC’s commitment to the role of art and creative thinking in transforming society. 

Exhibitions and video installations are held on the first floor; the second-floor mezzanine will be sublet to another university group. With its awesome views, the third floor is being designed as an events space. 

From the high-ceilinged entry, punctuated by clerestory windows, architectural glass bricks and polished concrete floors, institute director Rachel Nelson walks through the corridor of offices, curatorial planning space, conference and classrooms. 

“Spaces for study groups to meet, for the community to gather, for video and installation events and above all,” she emphasizes,” a place for conversations to start, continue and move outward into the communities.”

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Less than a month into its 10-year lease, the IAS is already busy fulfilling its mission. Already, 19 student interns and school groups have come for opening week visits. 

The current exhibitions illustrate Nelson’s point about approaching themes from fresh viewpoints. Emphatically multi-disciplinary, the displays address the prison culture in a disarming series of image and video explorations. “How can you even imagine a world without prisons? What would it take to get there?” Nelson asks. 

The IAS opening exhibition lives up to what Nelson believes to be its primary mission: whatever illuminates the issues of our time.

“We chose the prison abolition movement because research about it was born at UCSC,” she says. “There is a critical mass of people right now at the University of California Santa Cruz working around incarceration, such as IAS program designer and UCSC Feminist Studies professor Gina Dent, head of the $2 million Mellon Foundation-funded “Visualizing Abolition” program. Angela Davis is probably the most famous, but there are many others, including Nelson herself. “We have a deep rich tradition of thinking critically about prisons and thinking about the prison abolition movement.”

“Visualizing Abolition” is the theme of the first round of exhibitions connected to a vigorous public scholarship program, beginning with the work of artist-activist Ashley Hunt titled “Degrees of Visibility,” dealing with the landscapes surrounding prisons in the US. 

Nelson points to the idea of the invisible prison, the fact that prisons are kept out of sight—the Marin Prison is literally underground, as Hunt’s image records. Tiny bits of text offering sobering data and statistics are paired with large neatly-framed images. Prisons can thrive because they are hidden, and Hunt’s photographs persuade the viewer. The last photo in the long hallway gallery, fittingly, is of an abandoned prison in ruins. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Another large-scale exhibit, “Seeing and Seen” by Sky Hopinka, displays photographs and a wall-sized video installation exploring relationships between carceral [the incarcerated] and settler colonial history of the US. 

Hopinka, a 2022 MacArthur Fellow and indigenous artist, explores the perpetual incarceration of Native Americans. A darkened screening room displays his haunting and ironic video of ocean waves outside the country’s oldest prison, in St. Augustine, Florida. This installation is presented in collaboration with the San Jose Museum of Art, one of the IAS partners, and the Santa Cruz MAH. 

Nelson cited cost when asked about the historical context of the long-awaited IAS opening. The project was downsized, but the pandemic shut down further discussion. Downtown spaces were considered but came with caveats, like limited student accessibility and parking.  

Then the Delaware space became available, with parking, proximity to campus and on Metro routes.

Nelson has plenty of answers regarding the inaugural emphasis on prison abolition.  

Back in 2017, a conference was discussed: a three-day event around the topic of visualizing abolition. 

“Covid happened. Then the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings of summer 2020,” the IAS director recalls. “And we realized that we could not let Covid stop us from doing something that our students, our community, this nation, the world was clamoring for, which is to think beyond the systems that are currently in place. To imagine a world otherwise.”

Instead of doing the three-day symposium, the school provided a weekly discussion online around prison abolition, with speakers from all over, eliciting some 30,000 tele-participants.

“Somehow, we have created a world in which gun violence, domestic violence, and other acts that we label ‘criminal’ thrive and so now we’re asking how do we create a world in which they don’t?” Nelson says.

Once past the front desk and gathering area, the visitor enters a gallery of photographic images lining both sides of the main gallery space. Up close, the images by Hunt appear to be quiet landscape studies. The captions tell a different and more shocking story, one of staggering numbers of inmates, and details of the historical roots of the prison settings, many back to pre-abolition eras. 

The exhibition suggests one answer to Nelson’s rhetorical question: how can we imagine a world without prisons? Removing all inequity might be a utopian dream. Whether we can genuinely abolish prisons remains an open question. But that’s the whole point for Nelson in her role as IAS director: to keep the discussion open. 

The new IAS home exists to help deepen relationships with other museums and other educational institutions and, as Arts Division Dean Celine Parreznnas Shimizu believes, to deepen opportunities for people to work together “for equitability and to advance excellence.” Developing multi-sited exhibitions and programming with partners, including longtime collaborators San José Museum of Art and MAH, IAS intends to promote the region as a destination for innovative arts programming and new modes of experiential arts education.

A final look at Hunt’s Holman “Correctional Facility” photograph reinforces the open discussion vision. In it, a dirt road cuts through a vast panorama of cotton fields, beyond which the existing facility sits far in the distance. According to the caption, the facility imprisons 2,799 men, including 158 on Death Row.

The UCSC Institute of Arts & Sciences galleries are at 100 Panetta Ave., Santa Cruz. Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. ias.ucsc.edu

Rachel Nelson’s quote, “Somehow, we have created a world in which criminals thrive…” was adjusted to; “”Somehow, we have created a world in which gun violence, domestic violence, and other acts that we label ‘criminal’ thrive,” at her request after Good Times went to print.

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